Editor’s note (1): Download our free ebook Understanding Private School Financial Aid to help guide your financial aid process.

Editor’s note (2): This is our annual crunch-time post at this acute period in private school financial aid calendar. We offer some tips directly from the financial aid expert himself, Mark Mitchell, Vice President, School and Student Services (SSS By NAIS). I asked Mark to share insights on the top five things that families need to keep in mind this financial aid season. Here’s Mark:

For the 2016-17 school year, NAIS member schools distributed $2 billion in need-based financial aid to nearly 25 percent of enrolled students. Schools’ commitment to offer financial aid to make enrollment a reality for thousands of students is deep and wide. As you start the process of applying for financial aid, here are a few questions that we hear frequently that can keep you informed on what to expect.

1. How do I know if I’m even going to qualify?


You really can’t know until you apply. Don’t make assumptions about who does and who doesn’t qualify for financial aid. Research and understand the tuition and other costs associated with each school you’re considering. If you don’t feel you can fully afford the costs, apply for aid. Increasingly, though still somewhat rare, schools are including financial aid estimators on their websites, so look for those as you do your homework. Also, many schools will include profiles or snapshots of their financial aid applicants and recipients on their websites to give you a general sense of the types or ranges of families that they are receiving financial aid.

2. What if I’m divorced?

Most schools will require you and your ex-spouse to submit separate applications. If you are re-married, your new spouse will most likely be expected to include his or her financial information as part of your application as well. The same is true is your ex-spouse has remarried. If you feel your situation is such that it would be impossible to reasonably get the cooperation of your ex-spouse in the process, be sure to contact the school to get their guidance on how best to proceed. It’s important to be aware that most schools believe that the unwillingness of ex-spouses or of stepparents to support the child’s tuition is not an acceptable position for a family seeking need-based aid. Schools are first and foremost concerned that each household is demonstrating its ability to pay what it can, not its willingness.

3. Will my retirement accounts be included? What about my home equity?


Yes. The application will ask you to report how much you have saved in retirement accounts as well as how much you contribute to them in a year. Home equity (your home’s current value minus any debt you owe on it) is also included in the assessment. These types of assets allow the school to get the full picture of your financial profile, but are generally treated in a very conservative manner in the determination of what you can pay. Whether you feel you need to use any of these assets to help pay your tuition is up to you and seeking the advice of a financial planner would be wise.

4. What if I don’t have my taxes done in time to submit them?


Most schools will require copies of your tax forms (1040, W2, etc) to document your income for the year. If the financial aid deadlines are too soon for your 2016 tax forms to be completed or available, you should still complete the application using your best estimates. Some schools may ask you to submit copies of your 2015 forms until your 2016 return is completed and available. The best advice is to complete your 2016 tax form as soon as you possibly can but be sure not to miss the school’s deadline for submitting your application.

5. How do College Savings Plans like “529s” work?


Any funds you have in a child’s name for college savings plans like 529 Plans should be reported on your financial aid application as one of your investments. When considered as a parent asset, college plans are treated much more conservatively than if you report it as a student asset. Similar to your retirement funds and your home equity, you may not be expected to tap into these investments, but they are important for schools to be aware of as a measure of your overall financial strength.

One final piece of advice: never hesitate to ask questions as you go through the process. Whether working directly with the schools you’re applying to or with the financial aid service providers they use, always be proactive when you’re unclear about how something works or just want to get a status check to be sure everyone has what they need. Being informed and proactive usually yields the best outcome with the least amount of surprises.